It’s no easy task these days for people to pick the scientists they should follow. According to a recent poll by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 39 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in the scientific community. The finding is similar to Pew research last year showing that 29 percent of Americans have this level of confidence in medical scientists.
Not helping: All the money in science. Just 20 percent of Pew’s survey respondents think scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest with industry. While this issue is common to many fields, the recent gold rush to foot the bill for research on therapies for healthy aging may be contributing to the overall sense of distrust. “There’s a feeling that at some point, the FDA may actually designate aging as a disease,” said Pam Maher, a neuroscientist who studies aging at Salk Institute. “That may be another impetus for a lot of these companies to start up.”
But partnering with companies is an important incentive for researchers across biomedical fields. Many scientists – with and without financial ties and incentives – are honest, transparent and doing important, inspiring work. I asked more than a dozen bioethicists and researchers in aging how to spot the scientists who are searching for the truth more than money, ego or fame.
Avoid Scientists Who Sound Overly Confident in messaging to the public. Some multi-talented scientists are adept at publishing in both top journals and media outlets. They’re great at dropping science without the confusing jargon, in ways the public can enjoy and learn from.
But do they talk in simple soundbites, painting scientific debates in pastels or black and white when colleagues use shades of gray? Maybe they crave your attention more than knowledge seeking. “When scientists speak in a very unnuanced way, that can be irresponsible,” said Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center.
Scientists should avoid exaggerations like “without a doubt” and even “we know” – unless they absolutely do. “I feel like there’s more and more hyperbole and attention seeking…[In aging research,] the loudest voices in the room are the fringe people,” said the biogenerontologist Matt Kaeberlein.
Separate Hype from Passion. Scientists should be, need to be passionate, Johnston explained. In the realm of aging, for example, Leonard Guarente, an MIT biologist and pioneer in the field of aging, told me about his belief that longer lifespans would make for a better world.
Instead of expecting scientists to be lab-dwelling robots, we should welcome their passion. It fuels scientific dedication and creativity. Fields like aging, AI and gene editing inspire the imaginations of the public and scientists alike. That’s not a bad thing.
But it does lay fertile ground for overstatements, such as claims by some that the first 1,000-year-old has already been born. If it sounds like sci-fi, it’s probably sci-fi.
Watch Out for Cult Behavior, some experts told me. Follow scientists who mix it up and engage in debates, said NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan, not those who hang out only with researchers in the same ideological camp.
Look for whether they’re open to working with colleagues who don’t share their views. Through collaboration, they can resolve conflicting study results and data, said Danica Chen, a biologist at UC Berkeley. We should trust science as long as it doesn’t trust itself.
Messiness is Good. You want to find and follow scientists who’ve published research over the years that does not tell a clean story. “Our goal is to disprove our models,” Kaeberlein said. Scientific findings and views should zig and zag as their careers – and science – progress.
Follow scientists who write and talk publicly about new evidence that’s convinced them to reevaluate their own positions. Who embrace the inherent messiness of science – that’s the hallmark of an honest researcher.
The flipside is a very linear publishing history. Some scientists have a pet theory they’ve managed to support with more and more evidence over time, like a bricklayer gradually, flawlessly building the prettiest house in the neighborhood. Too pretty.
There’s a dark side to this charming simplicity: scientists sometimes try and succeed at engineering the very findings they’re hoping to get, said Charles Brenner, a biochemist at City of Hope National Medical Center.
These scientists “try to prove their model and ignore data that doesn’t fit their model because everybody likes a clean story,” Kaeberlein said. “People want to become famous,” said Samuel Klein, a biologist at Washington University. “So there’s always that bias to try to get positive results.”
Don’t Overvalue Credentials. Just because a scientist works at a top university doesn’t mean they’re completely trustworthy. “The institution means almost nothing,” Kaeberlein said.
Same goes for publishing in top journals, Kaeberlein added. “There’s an incentive structure that favors poor quality science and irreproducible results in high profile journals.”
Traditional proxies for credibility aren’t quite as reliable these days. Shortcuts don’t cut it anymore; you’ve got to scrutinize the actual research the scientist is producing. “You have to look at the literature and try to interpret it for yourself,” said Rafael de Cabo, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Or find journalists you trust to distill this information for you, Klein suggested.
Consider Company Ties. Companies can help scientists bring their research to the public more directly and efficiently than the slower grind of academia, where “the opportunities and challenges weren’t big enough for me,” said Kaeberlein, who left the University of Washington earlier this year.
"It’s generally not universities that can take technology through what we call the valley of death,” Brenner said. “There are rewards associated with taking risks.”
Many scientists are upfront about their financial conflicts of interest – sometimes out of necessity. “At a place like Duke, our conflicts of interest are very closely managed, said Matthew Hirschey, who researchers metabolism at Duke’s Molecular Physiology Institute. “We have to be incredibly explicit about our partnerships.”
But the willingness to disclose conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean the scientist is any less biased. Those conflicts can still affect their views and outcomes of their research, said Johnston, the Hastings bioethicist.
“The proof is in the pudding, and it’s got to be done by people who are not vested in making money off the results,” Klein said. Worth noting: even if scientists eschew companies, they’re almost always financially motivated to get grants for their research.
Bottom line: lots of scientists work for and with companies, and many are highly trustworthy leaders in their fields. But if a scientist is in thick with companies and checks some of the other boxes on this list, their views and research may be compromised.
“Merry Christmas! Isn’t it fun to say Merry Christmas to everyone? Time for a party and presents and things that make children happy and give their hearts wings!” go the lyrics of the popular Christmas poem. But adults (of various religions) need their gifts this time of year, too. For the biologically inspired big children, the process of finding the right fit can be daunting. To inform your choices in both conventional and unconventional ways, Leaps.org is presenting a roundup of the coolest bio-products related to health, nutrition, gaming, lifestyle and more.
AYO Circadian Light Therapy Wearable
We don’t hear it tick, but we have our own clock inside our body–more precisely, circadian clocks. Our cells contain tiny molecular clocks that keep track of our circadian rhythms, or our sleep and metabolism pattern and activity levels, on a daily basis. Chronic circadian disruptions can lead to sleep disorders, poor energy levels, weight gain, lousy mood, and sped-up aging, as well as increased risk for every “modern” disease out there, from diabetes to cancer.
Now, high-tech glasses have been developed that attempt to mimic the benefits of sunlight. In the morning and afternoon, these glasses shed blue light into your eyes to stimulate the master clock at the base of your brain for less drowsiness. The technology's design draws from an area of research, chronobiology, that received a Nobel Prize in 2017 and has become increasingly active in recent years.
“We have been developing and testing the AYO Circadian Health solution for the past five years in collaboration with some of the world's leading experts and researchers in chronobiology, light therapy and health,” said Alexander Dimitrov, co-creator of AYO. “We have done studies with over 25,000 participants, and over one million light sessions,” Dimotrov continued, partnering with institutions such as Mount Sinai Hospital, City of Hope and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The technology could fundamentally reshape the way we view sleep, health and our daily calendars. And, when connecting to a mobile app, the glasses could minimize circadian disruptions for travelers between conflicting time zones.
It's not easy for many people to break free of their attachment to the concept of chronological age, which counts years by how many times we’ve circled the sun since the day we were born. Society lumps us all into one age bracket according to our date of birth but, lately, research is suggesting that we should do some serious deconditioning. According to these studies, the more accurate measure is your biological age, a measurement based on various biomarkers of the body’s overall health and resilience, regardless of your calendar age.
If you want to find out your “true” biological age, myDNAge is a test that focuses on epigenetics, or patterns of changes in DNA methylation, with some initial research pointing to its accuracy. It offers a snapshot of your epigenetic age as well as key biomarkers related to your metabolism, risk of Alzheimer's and more, according to Xiaojing Yang, group leader of epigenetics at myDNAge. “You can perform tests six to 12 months [apart] to track the impact of lifestyle changes,” Yang said. The kit could be a useful tool both for citizen scientists and biohacking veterans.
($299 for one kit–Use code NEWYEARNEWME to receive 50% off a second kit)
Prairie Sky Yak Cheese
Do you love cheese? Do you love exotic cheese? Do you have an interest in preserving biological and genetic diversity? If you answered yes to all three questions, yak cheese was made for you. This type of cheese typically comes from a free-range yak living 13,000 feet above surface level in the Tibetan Himalayas, a relative of the endangered Wild yak. (North America is home to at least 5,000 registered yaks.)
“When I learned that we had a piece of rare biodiversity to be preserved for future generations, I realized that the yak in North America needed a job,” said Nicole Geijer Porter, president of World Heritage Yak Conservancy (WHYC), an organization formed to protect heritage yak “If an animal cannot be beneficial to the rancher in some way, exclusively as pets and lawn ornaments, they will go extinct. Raised for meat they are often hybridized with cattle to grow bigger and faster, so they will also go extinct,” said Porter, an epigeneticist turned yak herder.
Each slice of cheese and piece of butter supports the genetic testing and tracking of Tibetan yak. (You can become a member of WHYC through the Adopt-A-Yak program). “This project is also of biological importance because of the low methane emission research on yak, and the high nutritional content of the milk and cheese,” said Porter.
As for flavor, the Prairie Sky Yak Gruyere is a semi-hard cheese with a nutty taste sometimes compared to chocolate; Tomme de Savoie is a semi-soft Alpine cheese reminiscent of a washed rind muenster; and the Yak Cheddar is made with yak milk following the classic English recipe from Wells Cathedral, with earthly and pungent flavors.
Bite Toothpaste Bits
The price of a healthy smile is steep. Each year over one billion plastic toothpaste tubes are thrown out, over 50 Empire State Buildings worth of these tubes end up in landfills or oceans, and many animals suffer and die each year in cruel tests for improving oral care in people.
Sustainable oral care is both an act of self-love and giving back to the environment. Bite is a toothpaste that boasts about its green practices for a reason: it uses recyclable glass bottles with aluminum lids that break down into sand after they’ve been used. For shipping, Bite uses kraft envelopes padded with recycled and compostable newspapers, and its boxes are made of fully recycled, corrugated cardboard and sealed with paper tape. Bite refills come in 100% home compostable pouches every four months (still no plastic).
Sustainability aside, there may be an element of fun to Bite – as you brush, a mint foam forms “like magic,” the company claims.
Fractional Laser Treatment for Skin
The environment is hard on our skin: from ultraviolet rays to pollution, a constant oxidative war is waged upon it, leading to loss of collagen and damage to the barrier function of the skin. A fractional laser treatment is a type of laser skin resurfacing procedure that essentially traumatizes the skin – in a good way - through subjecting a small area of it to tiny amounts of laser energy. The laser penetrates the second layer of skin, the dermis, leading to skin exfoliation, which stimulates collagen and elastin production.
The treatment may help with soothing acne scarring, correcting uneven skin tone and texture, and reducing wrinkles and fine lines, sun damage and age spots. Recent research suggests the fractional laser can help with improving skin elasticity and reducing the amount and depth of wrinkles, though there’s little to no evidence for any benefits for eyebags, dark circles, discolorations within the eye area and water retention.
(Typically, a single fractional laser treatment costs $750 for a small area, $1500 for a full facial treatment, and $2000 for full face.)
Gadgets and Apps to Measure Your Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability may sound like a condition that requires immediate medical treatment, but the more you have of it, the better for your health. Although you may think of the heart as a steadily beating metronome, there are actually small differences in the amount of time between each beat. These differences are called HRV, and having more HRV has been linked to better fitness and fewer diseases.
HRV is easy to measure with a range of gadgets on the market, including Fitbits and Oura Rings. Which product floats your boat is a matter of personal preference, but the Polar H10 chest strap offers some advantages. For example, you can measure your HRV with the Polar H10 while walking around, unlike some devices that require you to stay still while taking a reading.
Plus, the Polar sensor pairs with free apps such as Elite HRV that are great for tracking how your HRV changes over time. "HRV really helps you gauge if you're moving in a positive or negative direction" with your health, says Jason Moore, the CEO and founder of Elite HRV and Spren. Have fun experimenting over the holidays with different lifestyle habits that are associated with higher HRV, some studies show, such as intermittent fasting, regular exercise and just getting more sleep.
Its predecessor, FOODMarble AIRE1 was a pocket-size breath-testing device that measured hydrogen on the breath. More hydrogen means less digestion, and the AIRE1 used advanced breathalyzer technology to figure out what exactly is going on with the gut. Now, the company has launched FoodMarble AIRE2, which also measures methane alongside with hydrogen. High levels of methane in the body may cause abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis. The AIRE2 also comes with haptic feedback to make it easier to use.
Research suggests that these breath tests are valid as at-home diagnostic tools for many digestive conditions. To get the most accurate results, though, it’s important to closely follow the recommended protocol - for example, you can’t eat or drink anything for 10 to 12 hours before the test.
Adventurist Backpack’s Classic Backpack
The Classic backpack is a perfect option for life science aficionados who enjoy getting outside and exploring in nature. Padding in the front and back provides extra protection for camera gear, laptop, and other electronics, and it's completely water-resistant so you can get outside in winter weather.
Nobility points: Adventurist Backpack Co. is partnered with national non-profit Feeding America, and every backpack sold helps provide 25 meals to families in need across the U.S.
This Saves Lives
Speaking of nobility points, you could load your new backpack with a food choice that helps feed others as well. In 2013, actors Kristin Bell, Ryan Devlin, Ravi Patel and Todd Grinnell teamed up to start This Saves Lives, which makes power bars full of vitamins and nutrients, and the company has a unique business model: for every bar you buy, a packet of food is sent to a child in need. In addition to offering essential nutrients, the bars are non-GMO, kosher and gluten-free. Note:This Saves Lives is owned by the same company, GOOD Worldwide, that owns Leaps.org.
(Wild Blueberry & Pistachio bars, $23.99)
NADI X Pants
Even if you’re a yoga zealot enjoying the benefits to your strength, balance and flexibility, chances are you're performing the movements sort of askew. Wearable technology wants to improve your yoga posture and these sleek yoga pants called NADI X have subtle electronic sensors that track how you place your hands, rotate your hips, and align your back. The leggings use haptic feedback (or vibrations on your skin) to slowly guide you into correct alignment. You can also combine the wearable with an app that contains 40 poses and fitting music. Even if you aren't into yoga, you could use the pants for a perfect stretching session. If you do use it for yoga poses, the pants will “speak” to you, letting out a soothing "om" sound once everything is perfect.
Meta Quest Pro VR headset
When it comes to perfecting virtual reality (VR), the Meta Quest Pro VR headset is one step ahead the rest. In a vibrant 3D virtual space, your Meta avatar has the ability to translate your real-life facial expressions into the virtual realm so the experience can feel more personal, while controllers track your movement and use haptic feedback to translate your hand gestures and finger actions into VR as well. Unlike its Quest 2 headset, Meta markets this Quest Pro headset, which was just released in October, as a great tool for work and business meetings, but you can also use it to play games, watch movies, or download fitness apps or mental-health related apps – some of which are designed to help you get boxing workouts with long-distance friends, fight your fear of heights or meditate in outer space.
Rouge Sur Mesure Custom Lip Color Creator
Beauty and artificial intelligence (AI) complement each other well in the new Yves Saint Laurent lip personalized color – which wants to put the final nail on the coffin of generic lipsticks. This is a lipstick printer at its core. You pair a device to your smartphone and then insert three lipstick cartridges into the base, each of which comes with a color palette (all four could create up to 4,000 lipstick shades). Particularly charming is the fact that you can take a photo of your outfit, and the app will suggest shades that match or clash it.
($299, cartridges $89 each)
Dairy-Free Cream Cheese and Meatless Breakfast Patties
On the environmental front again, meatless patties and dairy-free cream cheese constitute conscientious and delicious choices for vegans, vegetarians and pretty much anyone else. Chicago-based Nature's Fynd is worth checking out. It uses a microbe named Fusarium strain flavolapis, which has originsin an acidic hot spring at Yellowstone National Park.
“We use this remarkable microbe to grow Fy — a nutritional fungi protein that’s made into a wide variety of delicious and sustainable foods,” says Karuna Rawal, Nature’s Fynd CMO. Fy is grown via a breakthrough fermentation process using a fraction of the water, land, and energy compared to traditional protein sources.
It’s a sustainable way to grow food for Earth’s population,” but Nature’s Fynd isn’t just concentrating on Earth. The company recently partnered with NASA to send Fy to space. “As long as there’s an appropriately controlled environment, we can grow Fy anytime, anywhere. It could be a nutritious food source for astronauts on deep space missions," said Rawal.
Biologically curious people may be especially interested in trying cannabinoid (CBD) oil. CBD is a natural and safe substance found in cannabis, which has been found to tackle anxiety and depression, reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, help manage chronic pain and migraines, improve sleep patterns, and keep panic attacks at bay. Kanibi’s Isolate CBD Oil Tincture is a good choice as it is cinnamon-flavored and made in an FDA-inspected facility.
($109--25% off on your first order)
Govee RGBIC Floor Lamp
Another winner for anyone who's been hearing about the health benefits of obeying your circadian rhythms: "RGB" lights, or red-green-blue lights that can be operated by remote control to shine bright blue light during the day and then, with a few touches of your phone, bathe you in warmer, red light to get you ready for bed. Look for RGB bulbs to stick into the light fixtures you already have, or you could opt for the Govee floor lamp that syncs with an app on your phone (or Alexa) for circadian color changing. You can also put it on party mode and watch it shift across 16 million color shades in response to the rhythms and beats of Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas and Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah.
If you suffer from packing anxiety (or incompetence), an app may take away the pain. PackPoint is an app that builds your packing list according to trip type, activities and weather. You add your trip details, select activities (fancy dinner, business meeting, or even workout are some examples), and PackPoint tells you what you need to bring to your destination. The app is free, but upgrading to Premium for a small fee lets you add your own activities and packing list items.
(Free, Premium Package $2.99)
Roses symbolize love, passion, innocence, friendship, and the disarming power of natural beauty. They wilt fast, though, and their spectacle is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of beauty and existence. Unless you dip the rose in 24 karat gold.
The Eternity Rose is put through an intricate three-month process of electroplating, or coating the rose with copper and then with other metals in micro-thin layers. You won’t have to see your flowers sag after a few days because these roses never die. The glitter of gold atop the natural rose (or platinum or silver–whatever you prefer) will fit right in with the Christmas Eve ambiance.
($169 for the gold rose)
As the coronavirus tears across the globe, the world's anxiety is at a fever-pitch, and we're all craving information to stay on top of the crisis.
But turning to the Internet for credible updates isn't as simple as it sounds, since we have an invisible foe spreading as quickly as the virus itself: misinformation. From wild conspiracy theories to baseless rumors, an infodemic is in full swing.
For the latest official information, you should follow the CDC, WHO, and FDA, in addition to your local public health department. But it's also helpful to pay attention to the scientists, doctors, public health experts and journalists who are sharing their perspectives in real time as new developments unfold. Here's a handy guide to get you started:
Dr. Trevor Bedford/@trvrb: Scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center studying viruses, evolution and immunity.
Dr. Benhur Lee/@VirusWhisperer: Professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Angela Rasmussen/@angie_rasmussen: Virologist and associate research scientist at Columbia University
Dr. Florian Krammer/@florian_krammer: Professor of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Alice Sim/@alicesim: Infectious disease epidemiologist and consultant at the World Health Organization
Dr. Tara C. Smith/@aetiology: Infectious disease specialist and professor at Kent State University
Dr. Caitlin Rivers/@cmyeaton: Epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Dr. Michael Mina/@michaelmina_lab: Physician and Assistant Professor of Epidemiology & Immunology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia/@BhadeliaMD: Infectious diseases physician and the medical director of Special Pathogens Unit at Boston University School of Medicine
Dr. Paul Sax/@PaulSaxMD: Clinical Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital
Dr. Priya Sampathkumar/@PsampathkumarMD: Infectious Disease Specialist at the Mayo Clinic
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli/@KrutikaKuppalli: Medical doctor and Infectious Disease Specialist based in Palo Alto, CA
Dr. Syra Madad/@syramadad: Senior Director, System-wide Special Pathogens Program at New York City Health + Hospitals
Dr Sylvie Briand/@SCBriand: Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department at the World Health Organization
Jeremy Konyndyk/@JeremyKonyndyk: Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development
Amesh Adalja/@AmeshAA: Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Scott Becker/@scottjbecker: CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories
Dr. Scott Gottlieb/@ScottGottliebMD: Physician, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration
APHA Public Health Nursing/@APHAPHN: Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association
Dr. Tom Inglesby/@T_Inglesby: Director of the Johns Hopkins SPH Center for Health Security
Dr. Nancy Messonnier/@DrNancyM_CDC: Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)
Dr. Arthur Caplan/@ArthurCaplan: Professor of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center
Laura Helmuth/@laurahelmuth: Incoming Editor in Chief of Scientific American
Helen Branswell/@HelenBranswell: Infectious disease and public health reporter at STAT
Sharon Begley/@sxbegle: Senior writer at STAT
Carolyn Johnson/@carolynyjohnson: Science reporter at the Washington Post
Amy Maxmen/@amymaxmen: Science writer and senior reporter at Nature
Laurie Garrett/@Laurie_Garrett: Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist, author of The Coming Plague, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations
Soumya Karlamangla/@skarlamangla: Health writer at the Los Angeles Times
André Picard/@picardonhealth: Health Columnist, The Globe and Mail
Caroline Chen/@CarolineYLChen: Healthcare reporter at ProPublica
Andrew Jacobs/@AndrewJacobsNYT: Science reporter at the New York Times
Meg Tirrell/@megtirrell: Biotech and pharma reporter for CNBC
Kira Peikoff was the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org from 2017 to 2021. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.